Friday, September 26, 2014

In-Party Indecisions

As I move forward on this, I see it becoming harder and harder to explain what's going on in my mind as I draw the players into a situation.  As the reader will remember, the players have just seen the father, Mazonn, break down while trying to drive the characters off, mostly from fear.  We may assume at this time that the players are free to take this advice and continue down the road, but let's assume they do not and that - by degrees - they get the story out of Mazonn.  His wife and his wife's sister have been stolen away.  Three of his family are dead.  His brother Vasile is a wreck and his son Aulus is but 16.

Apart from that, someone on top of it in the party is going to ask, "Where have you come from?  Where are you going?"  As a DM, we have to have answers for these questions - preferably not stock answers.  It's tempting to say they're fleeing something, or that they have a great opportunity elsewhere.  Both are intended to encourage an audience's sympathy or encouragement, since we feel sorry for people who have to leave their homes and we feel hopeful for people who have a chance to become rich.  These stories, however, are tiresome.  And we don't need another reason for the party to like these people, do we?  It would be better to just have Mazonn look at his son when he gets the question; have the son shrink, turn away and hide his face; then give a very general answer.  "From the south; we heard there's new settlement in (whatever place we wish to name)."  Now we know the son has done something awful and that the family does not talk of it.  Later, there may be an opportunity to explain that - or there may never be such an opportunity.  Adventuring can very often be a matter of getting used to disappointment.

In a play, of course, we learn everything.  In an open system, however, there isn't time to learn everything.  In a play, the audience takes a passive attitude towards information they don't have - they know it will be revealed before the end.  In life, however, we know that unless we take an active stance - and all the risk that implies - we are not going to learn shit.  This passive vs. active requirement is fundamental to the difference between the 'story' game and the 'open' game - and it helps explain why stories do NOT build tension as well as personal commitment does.  In a story, we are afraid for someone else (which is how we'll view our characters).  When we have to do it ourselves, we are afraid for ourselves.

Once the party has gotten the information, they'll want to talk about it.  We want to encourage this. We do not want to push the party one way or another, at least not in the beginning.  Let them gripe, let them re-examine the evidence, discuss what they believe and what they don't.  Keep them on topic!  They'll start to slide off into a lot of related and unrelated content and we'll need to say, "Okay, okay, but that's then and this is now.  What do you want to do."  We'll also need to say, "Fine, but since you don't know for sure what's going to happen in the future, what do you want to do right now?"  Let them talk, but be sure they stay on topic and don't let them over-think the situation.  There's nothing wrong with saying, as the DM, "You don't know that's going to happen, you have no reason to think that's going to happen, don't over-think this."  Now and then a party will need reassurances that if you wanted to kill them, you'd put thirty master assassins behind 30 trees and let fly.

Remember that as the party is over-thinking and coming up with half-baked ridiculous notions about what might happen if they do this or that, it's a sure sign that a) they don't trust you and b) they're getting scared.  They will never admit to being scared, but the whole "something is waiting to screw us over, DM or monster" thing is proof positive that you're getting under their skin.

You've got to get them to aim that fear at a target, and you've got to get them to agree.  How?

A typical situation that people online describe would be two halves of the party who refuse to agree.  Half wants to help Mazonn regain his wife and his sister; the other half wants to ditch this and keep going.  After five or ten minutes - all you'll need if you're paying attention - it's clear the situation is becoming deadlocked.  At this point, you'll be sorely tempted to push the side you don't prefer into the other camp.

You want the party to get the women.  You know there's a little goblin village of 30 goblins and 4 dire wolves about five miles into the forest, with a few thousand gold in treasure and perhaps the +1 double-damage sword vs. white-haired villains that the fighter's been hankering for.  The two people in the party who don't want to go are the same two who never want to do anything, so you say, "Hey, look, I've designed this part of the adventure already . . ."


You might say, "There's a fat purse hanging on the dead goblin's belt" . . . or, "You can see the goblin's sword has three jewels in it" . . . or some other painfully obvious bribe that really ought to be beneath you.

Or you might try, "I need the party to make up their mind, we're wasting a lot of time already." While pointedly staring at the one player who isn't doing what you want.  This subtly fixes the blame for everything on the one person you've identified with your eyes, building peer pressure against that person.  It's manipulative, it's an unfair use of your authority and you may not even be aware that you've done it.  The target will be aware, however, and they may respond quite bitterly - and if you blithely targeted them without knowing it, then you're now going to feel that the target is the problem player - after all, why is he suddenly getting bitter for no reason?

The problem begins where you or I the DM invests in one choice or the other.  We must acknowledge that, first of all, we have a great deal of power at that table; we must further acknowledge that once we begin thinking along certain lines, our subconscious will kicks into the process of getting us what we want.  We think, "I wish the party would do this" - and within minutes our monkey brains are moderating our facial expressions, the tone of our voice, our body language, the direction of our eyes when we speak and so on, all without our corresponding awareness.  If you think this isn't happening - that you control these things - then you are living in a dream world, bub.  This only makes the situation worse, as after a lifetime of total denial that you send messages without using your brain you're facing the steep hill of self-awareness.

The solution to this is not to think, "I'll have an opinion but I'll keep it to myself."  That's exactly where all this monkey shit starts.  The solution is to think, "I won't have an opinion.  And I'll mean that."

You can't control your subconscious - but you can adapt yourself to the understanding that BOTH decisions made by BOTH sides of the party have merit and that you can roll with either one when the time comes!  For many a reader out there, indifference will seem like an impossible goal.  As a DM, however, indifference will be an insanely valuable benefit for you.

Do you imagine that a professional umpire gives a shit which group of pampered, over-paid, spoiled-rotten ignorant jocks wins a particular professional baseball game?  In a world where every single pitch is going to be examined by hundreds of over-paid analysts one frame at a time?  Fuck no.  If you want to be an umpire, you have to get yourself into a headspace where it doesn't matter if Jim Bob or Bubba Jim is a nice guy or not.  No one deserves to win.  No one deserves to lose.  NO ONE deserves shit all.

You've just got to get all this shit about what players ought to do out of your damn head; it is their lives, their characters, their win or loss - you and your wishes don't enter into it.  You've created the situation; you're managing it, you're building tension and expectations - and in all truth, the less you say the better.

Think about it.  The party is arguing because they haven't got enough information to tip it one way or the other.  That lack of information is tension.  The one half is thinking, "If we go to town, we'll lose out on the treasure that is surely out there."  The other half is thinking, "We don't know what the hell is out there, I want to be more sure about what I'm doing before I commit myself."  Both of these positions are correct positions to have!

Both are strategies the players are employing to manage their uncertainty.  Some will say, "Well, we're here to adventure, they ought to be brave enough to risk it all, no matter what."  In the reality of the game, however, that is pure ignorance.  One might as well say, "Hey, fuck it, move the bishop, it's only a game!"

Thank you, no.  I'll move my bishop when it seems like a good idea.  This is where half your party is.

Any information you give at this point will tip the balance - and if the party is completely stymied, you will have to tip the balance if you want the game to continue.  However, as I've argued, you're hopefully indifferent.  So let's look at the situation again in terms of what we DMs legitimately control:  Mazonn, Aulus and Vasile.

All three will be perfectly capable of hearing the party argue - even if the party says they're moving away and out of earshot, they'll be visible (the npcs will ensure that) and the npcs will develop opinions about what's said or conveyed that they're entitled to comment on.

Well, we can have the npcs change the situation.  They set about righting the wagon and moving it off the road.  One or two of the players will probably help once this begins.  We can have the npcs ask questions of the party:  "Where are you coming from, who are you, where did that bauble on your neck come from, what does the symbol on your shield mean" and so on.  Questions that are likely to come from the father or the boy, depending.  We might have Vasile have a breakdown, seizing the spear and running into the forest, only to be caught and restrained by the father.  The father may tell Aulus to look after Vasile, bury the bodies, get themselves to the next town - while the father marches into the forest alone.

None of these tell the party what to do.  They're all part of the scene, the groundwork for which we laid out in the beginning.  If the party won't make up their mind, we just go on playing the scene out as it logically would play.  The boy would be curious; the father determined; the uncle distraught.  They'd feel all the emotions the party feels: uncertainty, expectation of failure and death, an inability to move on and leave the women behind and so on.

As the npcs play out their own drama, the players will make up their minds about who they are.  Their uncertainty will find a pale reflection in the father's apparent will to commit suicide by going it alone.  Their greed will be put into focus by the uncle's grief, the father's love for his wife, the boy's stiff willingness to do as his father asks.

And if the party still can't decide, the boy will eventually load Vasile in the wagon with all their stuff, the father will be gone into the forest and the situation will simply evaporate.

Through it all, you'll still be the DM.  You won't have manipulated anyone.  And if the party wants to fight and argue all night about what they should have done, LET THEM.  They have to learn to work together as a team - and that will mean that sometimes they have to argue until they learn how to make decisions together.

You're only making that harder for them if you intervene.


  1. In a play, of course, we learn everything. In an open system, however, there isn't time to learn everything. In a play, the audience takes a passive attitude towards information they don't have - they know it will be revealed before the end.

    So much gold here, Alexis. An explanation, to start, of why and how my sandboxes keep falling apart. This is stuff I ought to communicate explicitly to the players.

    Also worth considering the value of pushing player frustration back into character dialogue and interactions with NPCs. If two players have PCs who have legitimate reason to not agree on a course of action, maybe that's worthy of resolution in play, not meta play?

  2. Players have to be given a chance to argue impersonally with one another. If the DM resolves every disagreement, the players will never learn to disagree fruitfully.

  3. This is an excellent series of posts--deserving of elaboration in its own book!

    Today's chapter, in particular, takes aim at my greatest struggles. Thank you!

    I really hate to sound like such a kiss-ass, but you ought to be getting paid for this.

  4. (pt 2)

    Again, I realize that (hopefully) players think *any* situation where they find people dead on the road is fraught with significance, I'm just asking if every unusual occurrence is accorded equal attention and exposition on your end ... if not, it seems that the players, particularly the deliberately-intuitive types, will try to divine "the adventure" in what may amount to a binary way.

    I also want to make sure I understand the distinction between "encouraging the behavior you want" and "total free agency." I tossed up a theory above but I'd obviously like to hear it from you.

    In any case, if you're able to muster this sort of depth with every unusual interaction, it dispels any need for clarification, I just find it frankly amazing.

    I hope I'm grasping that the thrust of the article is "don't invest in WHAT they do, just that they do SOMETHING," just clarifying how that works with the DM's manipulation techniques, trying to keep from nudging anyone down a particular DIRECTION, and [most?] players' tendencies to try to find the adventure and "please" the DM.

    Finally, is this something you'd do with players new to your campaign or just with old hands who've internalized the idea of making their own decisions?

    (Pardon the lack of cogency and focus, this is a rush job and I have a case of the Fridays)

  5. That's it all right, Scott. Don't invest in what the party does, because they'll do something and you can make that work.

  6. (I think part 1 is missing, but maybe I didn't post it correctly because I find blogger comment interface maddening. I'm not wed to sequence.)


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